Can Soft Drinks Be Healthy?

New sodas are aimed at health-conscious consumers but fall short experts say.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 09, 2007
4 min read

The idea of a healthy soft drink may sound like an oxymoron. But to soda manufacturers, it's the hottest trend in the better-for-you category of food and beverages.

With all the attention on obesity and health, consumers are looking for healthier, more natural beverages. And manufacturers are hoping to perk up sagging soda sales with new "healthy" soft drinks spiked with vitamins and minerals and marketed with natural-sounding terms.

Sales of carbonated drinks have been sagging due to the popularity of bottled water and noncarbonated drinks like teas, juices, sports drinks, and "functional" drinks with added ingredients purported to reduce stress or increase energy.

Soda companies have responded by launching new products and marketing efforts.

Some carbonated beverages are now being marketed as "sparkling," implying a healthier, more natural beverage. There are caffeine-free, no-calorie beverages laced with vitamins and minerals, like Diet Coke Plus and Tava from Pepsi. "Zero-calorie" sodas are aimed at consumers who don’t like the idea of a "diet" drink. Jazzed-up flavors like pomegranate, cherry, vanilla, lemon, lime, and caramel are also making their way into soft drinks.

“The beverage industry believes that all beverages, including carbonated soft drinks, can be part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle,” says Tracey Halliday, spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association. She points out that many of the beverage industry’s products, including bottled waters, juices, sports drinks, and diet soft drinks, can be catalysts to health and fitness.

The truth is that artificially sweetened soft drinks – even those fortified with vitamins and minerals -- are anything but natural and healthy, says Marion Nestle, New York University nutrition professor and author of What to Eat.

"It is ridiculous to market soft drinks as healthy, but in today’s marketplace consumers are demanding more healthylooking food, and beverages and soft drink manufacturers need to boost sales," she says.

Most consumers do not need the extra vitamins found in fortified soft drinks, she adds.

"We are not vitamin deficient, and these beverages do not address the real health issues of our country of obesity, heart disease, or cancer," says Nestle.

University of Vermont researcher Rachel Johnson, PhD, RD, agrees.

"It concerns me that we have so many ultra-fortified products where we virtually put a vitamin pill into a soft drink," she says. "The nutrients put into these soft drinks are not the shortfall nutrients that are lacking in our diets such as calcium, potassium, folate, or vitamin D."

Johnson advises consumers to choose beverages that not only quench thirst but also deliver needed nutrients, such as 100% fruit juice and skim or low-fat milk.

"These beverages will help you meet your nutritional needs and satisfy the recommendations of the [U.S. government's] 2005 Dietary Guidelines," she says.

Consumers are turning away from sugary sodas because of the potential link to obesity. Yet "there is very little evidence that diet sodas help people lose weight," says Nestle. "In fact, one study suggested that people use diet drinks to help justify eating more calories."

Experts do agree that low- or no-calorie soft drinks are better than sugary regular sodas.

"It is fine to enjoy a diet soda as long as you don’t use them as a license to add more calories from other foods. Because some people drink a diet drink so they can eat a big piece of cake," says Nestle.

Diet soft drinks are also helpful for consumers who are hooked on regular sodas and trying to wean themselves off the sugary beverages.

Liquid calories can lead to weight gain because beverages go down so easily. They may satisfy thirst, but they don't affect hunger. So people who drink sugary sodas don't generally take in fewer calories from food to compensate.

"Lots of people don’t think about what they are drinking and how it impacts the overall diet," says Johnson. "The average American gets 22% of their calories from beverages."

Indeed, a recent study from Yale University analyzed 88 soda studies and found a clear link between soft drink intake and consumption of extra calories.

"The most compelling studies showed that, on days when people drink soft drinks, they consumed more calories than on the days when they did not have soft drinks," study co-author Marlene Schwartz tells WebMD.

When you do want a regular soda, Nestle suggests that you think of it as dessert.

"If we treated a can of regular soda like a dessert, it would help keep extra calories under control," she says.

The experts agree that there is no harm in enjoying a low- or no-calorie soft drink. But they point out that the additives in some of the new sodas -- no matter how healthy sounding -- are either unnecessary or are added in such small quantities that they don't do anything for your health.

Nestle would rather see people choose beverages with nothing artificial added, such as a glass of sparkling water sweetened with real fruit juice.

Her advice: Consume the most natural foods and beverages, and always read the label. Check calories first, followed by sugar calories. Equipped with the facts, you can select the drink that's right for you.

And keep in mind, Johnson says, that soft drinks have no place in the diets of children 11 and under.

"Soft drinks do not belong in young children’s diets," says Johnson. "Because they need so many nutrients for growth and development, there is little room for soft drinks unless they are extremely active -- and even then it should only be an occasional treat."

Published May 9, 2007.